Bells ring out for a double from heaven

From the release of their first No 1, West End Girls back in 1985, to their current project, remixing The Killers’ new single Read My Mind, Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have rarely been out of demand.

The most successful pop double act in chart history, they have, over the last 21 years, not only enjoyed 20 Top Ten singles and 12 Top Ten albums, but also starred in their own movie (a surreal epic called It Shouldn’t Happen Here), written and staged a West End musical called Closer To Heaven, and scored a new soundtrack for the classic 1920 silent movie, Battleship Potemkin.

Over the years, collaborations with artists such as Liza Minnelli and Dusty Springfield have ensured their general appeal, to the point that their distinctive sound, on songs such as It’s a Sin, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Rent and this year’s I’m With Stupid — (a satirical swipe at Tony Blair’s relationship with George Bush) — are instantly recognisable.

Little doubt then that their Hogmanay performance in Princes Street Gardens to see in the bells is one of the most eagerly-awaited concerts to grace the city in a decade. With a playlist comprising the duo’s greatest hits, athletic dancers, huge video screens and a dancing top hat, it is the biggest production staged as part of the Capital’s New Year celebrations.

The spectacular mix is a combination that, during their recent American tour, caused the St Louis Post Dispatch to declare: ‘The Pet Shop Boys’ sensory-overload show was a two-act extravaganza with dancers, a ton of colourful costumes and fluid staging.’

An ebullient Neil Tennant admits he can’t wait. ‘We always used to get Andy Stewart on the TV at New Year in Newcastle when I was a kid, but I’ve never celebrated Hogmanay in Scotland.’

The Pet Shop Boys concert in the Gardens will follow the same format of those that have wowed the band’s fans in the States, although one or two adjustments have been made to the playlist.

‘We’ve put in a couple of new songs, taken out the old ones, and put in some faster ones. But there’ll be lots of songs that everyone knows. It will be a real party,’ says the singer, who was a frequent visitor to the Capital in his youth when he and his mates regularly made the trip north at the weekend.

That was long before he met Chris Lowe, of course, a serendipitous affair in an electronics shop on London’s King’s Road in 1981 which led to the formation of the Pet Shop Boys.

Recalling the moment their paths crossed, 52-year-old Tennant, who started writing songs at the age of 12, recalls: ‘I had bought a synthesiser and was in a shop down the road from where I lived looking for a jack that would allow me to plug my synthesiser into my 1980s-hifi, so that I could play it through the speakers — I’d bought it thinking it had internal speakers, but it didn’t.’

The pair struck up a friendship and were soon writing together. ‘I had always wanted to write music. I was inspired by The Beatles,’ explains Tennant, who was writing for Smash Hits at the time. ‘I had just sort of fallen into journalism. That made it more difficult to succeed as a musician — I can’t think of anyone else who has gone from journalist to musician successfully.’

Nonetheless, Tennant did and the Pet Shop Boys scored their first No 1 with West End Girls in 1985.

They then released three phenomenally successful albums – Please, Actually and Introspective — before heading off on their first live tour in 1989.

He recalls: ‘Right from the start we liked the idea of putting on a show. We had this very ambitious idea that the two of us would do a big theatrical show because when I was at Smash Hits I went to a lot of rock gigs and was struck by the fact that they could be quite boring. We wanted to do something that kept the audience interested, and wanted to work with a theatre director, which very few bands had done, ie, having someone think about the way it would look, how it would be paced and how it would be lit. That’s what we started doing in 1989 with [film director] Derek Jarman and what we are still doing today with Es Devlin.

‘When we finally toured, after the first three albums, it was a development. And then after the next album, Performance, we toured a huge production with the English National Opera people, again that gave us somewhere to go rather than it just being another album tour. So it was a reinvention of ourselves’

The Boys reinvented themselves again in 1988 with their cinematic release of It Couldn’t Happen Here, and again on the West End in 2001 with Closer to Heaven.

‘We never actually sat down and decided to make a movie. It evolved into a movie which was a very odd thing to happen,’ says the snger. ‘It was very surreal. It’s basically an extended pop video with some lovely imagery.’

Turning his attention to Closer To Heaven, he continues: ‘It is important to us to keep pushing boundaries, but doing the musical was something we had wanted to do right from the beginning, and we are certain to do another because it is such a massive collaboration between ourselves, the writer, the director, the producers, the cast and the musicians. It’s very complicated but we like that collaboration.’

IN 1997, 13 years after they first started recording together, the double act played their first rock festival, an engagement that Tennant admits took him by surprise.

‘I never thought we’d play festivals,’ he confesses, ‘but now we’ve headlined nearly every major festival in Europe. It’s been an interesting development for me as a performer.’

If there is any doubt that the singer has done just that, it’s worth reviewing the Pet Shop Boys’ past year — a busy one, of which the Hogmanay gig is a definite highlight.

‘We have done more than 50 concerts this year and have brought out so much stuff. We released the album Fundamental, the live album Concrete, there was a documentary about us called A Life In Pop, the release of our book, Catalogue, and three singles,’ says Tennant, adding: ‘We’ll be in Edinburgh for three days and rehearsing the day before. We haven’t done a concert for six weeks and we’ve got a couple of new songs in the show, so we’ll need to rehearse. Then in the New Year we carry on touring into January. I might take a holiday in February.’

After that break, however, the singer who is proud of his name’s Edinburgh connection —’the Tennant family are from Edinburgh, it’s an Edinburgh name’, — has more than enough to keep him and Lowe busy for another 21 years.

Despite his time in the business, however, Tennant’s enthusiasm remains undampened: ‘I have a lot of ambitions in terms of writing music, and in terms of collaborations,’ he reveals.

‘Doing another musical is one, although, I’m sick of the term musical because there are so many that it’s become a bit of a cliche. But we would like to do a contemporary entertainment with music and dance, something that is totally fresh.

‘Also, the ambition to write a successful pop song is always there because its not as easy as people think it is. I believe the people who survive in music survive because they have a hunger to create, and a need for their current work to be recognised.’

With an attitude like that it seems unlikely that the Pet Shop Boys will ever be accused of Being Boring.

Taken from:
Interviewer: LIAM RUDDEN